The link between breathlessness and your blood, lungs and heart
Many people think that becoming breathless when you’re active or having increasing fatigue is a part of growing older, or just needing to hit the gym a little harder. It’s natural to feel out of breath when you’ve exceeded yourself. However, when breathlessness comes on suddenly and unexpectedly, it could be a warning sign of a serious medical condition.
When you have difficulty breathing, it feels as though you can’t draw a full breath. This can develop progressively or come on abruptly. Breathlessness can mean a variety of things, including noisy breathing, very shallow breaths, and an increase in your pulse rate. It often occurs in combination with other symptoms such as a cough, chest pain or fever.
Breathlessness is most often caused by problems with blood, the lungs, the heart, or a combination of these factors. For example, if you have smoked most of your life, your lungs may no longer be healthy enough to efficiently take oxygen from the air and get it into your blood cells. Also, there may not be enough blood cells in your body to carry oxygen to your organs. And finally, your heart may not be pumping blood as well as it should be to get blood and oxygen to your organs.
Treatment for shortness of breath depends on what is causing it. In many cases, it is treatable.
Every evaluation starts with talking to your primary care provider or cardiologist about your symptoms. They may recommend that certain tests be performed. Blood tests, a chest x-ray, lung function testing, and an ultrasound of the heart may be needed to determine the cause of the breathlessness.
In some cases, an ultrasound of the heart, or an echocardiogram, may be recommended as treatment. The echocardiogram measures your heart’s size and pumping strength. It can spot valve problems, blood clots and extra fluid around your heart. It can give you and your cardiologist a head start in addressing—and maybe reversing—the problem before it gets worse.
With the appropriate therapy, many patients’ symptoms improve, and some resolve completely. Talking to your doctor about your breathlessness could be a life-changing conversation.